Should education be compulsory?

If there’s someone that’s going to put up an interesting argument against compulsory education, it’s the late libertarian economist and philosopher Murray Rothbard. While it doesn’t seem like he had much involvement with schooling, his perspective is so different to mainstream thought that it’s worth discussing here. When I’ve previously read Rothbard, I’ve been both stimulated and disappointed by his work, but it always makes you think, and the clarity of his exposition is rarely matched. If he’s wrong, we will all see it.

His political philosophy centres on the use of force, and particularly his opposition to the government’s monopoly thereon. He also employs a priori reasoning to create a theory, through which he then views events. Bearing these considerations in mind, we know we will get a certain perspective in this text. But therein lies the interest for me.  Below is a short summary and discussion of the first chapter of Rothbard’s Education: Free and Compulsory.

Rothbard starts with a child’s process of growing up, involving developing goals (ends) based on the individuality of the self, and a growing understanding of how to achieve them (means). Forming this rational means-ends framework is the process of growing up, and there is much useful knowledge to be gained in this process, of which formal instruction to convey intellectual knowledge is but one part. This involves reason and observation, and once these basic skills are learnt (through reading, writing, arithmetic), the learning of science, moral sciences (economics, politics, etc) and imaginative studies (literature) can occur. Outside of this, people formulate ideas about the world, how people relate to each other and how to achieve subjectively-determined ends within this world.

(There is much of this type of perspective in Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions and Knowledge and Decisions, wherein distinctions are made between ‘articulated knowledge’ such as that which is formally taught in schools, and other, less- or non-articulated knowledge, which is not formally taught. One can position Rothbard as respecting both sets of knowledge, while those whom Rothbard criticises later, as wishing to design a system based on their conceptions of useful knowledge, ignore unarticulated knowledge. Importantly, though, Rothbard criticises such people more for their willingness to control people through emphasising articulated knowledge, the instruction of which they control.)

Rothbard notes the individuality of children and people is a natural phenomenon, and that the growth of civilisation, brought about through specialisation (a form of knowledge creation), makes us more unequal. The push for uniformity to achieve equality of outcomes will stifle a student’s individuality and societal progress. Instead, equality should be emphasised by allowing students to develop their faculties and personalities, and to do so, they must be free from coercion and equal before the law. (One can also include freedom from economic constraint, one of the bases upon which a different strand of liberalism is underpinned. One can thus see the underlying tensions inherent in debate about free schooling – it depends upon one’s conception of liberalism.)

Therefore, Rothbard favours individual instruction, provided by parents, as the best means to educate children. It is voluntary, context-dependent, utilising the fullest knowledge of the individuality of the child, and not being burdened by the uniformity inherent in classroom teaching. Economic means are required to provide this education, and without such means, voluntary, individualised group-based schooling, focusing on the particular needs of the child, and without central direction backed with the use of force, will enable the individuality of a child to emerge, and allow a greater accountability mechanism to be used (exit). (Again, economic constraint is an issue here. Inherent in Rothbard’s analysis is that economic means can buy a better education. While some will argue this is bad for poor students, the lack of school choice now  – even when it’s free – has a similar effect.)

Rothbard provides other reasons for favouring voluntary educational methods: education can occur at appropriate paces, thereby tailoring education to a specific child’s needs; the level at which subjects are taught can be tailored to the specific capabilities of the child; the subjects that are taught can be tailored to the particular strengths of children;the amount of schooling can be tailored, allowing some students who have strengths in other areas to pursue their learning in those areas [this relates again to Rothbard’s (and Sowell’s) belief that there are many valuable forms of knowledge that can be attained, through various means].

Rothbard does not consider the downside of individualised instruction – the lower average ability of the teachers as more become involved in teaching. Rothbard seems to value the individualised instruction more than the average quality of the tuition, placing the emphasis of his argument on individualisation. It seems that a good middle ground is private schooling, and Rothbard is in favour of this.

Compulsory schooling laws, Rothbard argues, constitute an injustice on children, even those in private schools, by imposing by force standards of instruction that do not respect, and cannot consider, the individual needs of the child. The result is to move instruction to a lower academic level. To the extent that compulsory schooling laws allow for differentiation, this does not seem correct, but in reality, many schools, particularly comprehensive schools, seem to suffer from mixed abilities in one classroom, preventing appropriate differentiation. Indeed, my postgraudate teaching degree emphasised the need to differentiate within a lesson to cater for all needs, an impossible task that nonetheless is barely recognised as such. Good intentions often dominate over realism. Perhaps it is the best response we have to the system we are to work in. Try your best to differentiate.

Rothbard’s argument really centres on the uniformity and bluntness of centralised, compelled education. Each child is different, yet the force of law is going to force children into a situation that is not best for them. Rothbard also points out that the state, in assuming responsibility for education, is substituting itself for the parents in the child’s life, thereby stripping the family of the dignity of choice and responsibility, while imposing an inferior authority into the child’s life, one that does not have the incentive nor the information to do right by the child. In exercising it’s responsibility, the state will inevitably seek to control the child. Rothbard compares the horror of public education to the concept of a nation-wide chain of publicly run newspapers, with everyone compelled to read them. Naturally, this would be opposed by most people, and yet public education stirs but a few opponents. The ‘domain dependence’ in this type of thinking is revealed.

While Rothbard doesn’t consider some of the benefits of public education, he makes an interesting case against it. Human dignity and differentiation, and confidence in parents, form the basis of his perspective, as does his repulsion against the use of force. I tend to see myself as more utilitarian with respect to force, and am less offended by it than Rothbard. But Rothbard makes a good, albeit narrow case. If one accepts his premises on differentiation, dignity and force, it may be difficult to mount a counter to his argument. Expedience may be one. And of course the underlying notion in society that education is a human right and must be provided or at least funded by the state is an ideology that is not going anywhere fast. It is tied up in the notion of formal equality of opportunity (although it could be argued that substantive equality of opportunity is also a goal of public educationists, by stripping students of unearned advantages). While the intention to provide formal equality of opportunity is admirable, I wonder what the benefits of stripping the government of it’s role entirely, including of funding, would be on the education system? Perhaps greater inequality but an overall improved situation? One’s level of aversion to inequality will be critical in how one thinks of this type of situation, but as Rothbard quite rightly notes, people are different, ability and interest in education differs, so should we be aiming for equality at all, or is it an arbitrary, utopian vision that ignores the very nature of man? Indeed, the type of liberalism that will impede deregulated education from occurring is underpinned by the notion that humans are malleable and perfectible. This is inconsistent with reality.


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